Coline MacInnes captures the Stepney-that-was so brilliantly in Mr Love and Justice. When it still had docks, sailors, teeming life overflowing its streets and markets. I never got to see Spitalfields like this, never saw ships, and don’t think you quite get that feeling anymore of London ending abruptly at its city gates. I wish I seen it like that, though I still loved working and walking there: for the continued presence of so many different cultures; the bits and pieces of utopia; Barnardo’s orphanage; the work of Eleanor Marx, Father Groser and meals on wheels at St Katharine’s; what we ourselves built at St Katharine’s and its community garden.
So different from more judgmental views found in histories like that of Walter Besant or the orientalised visions expanded from Limehouse in the Fu Manchu novels, this description is splendid.
Stepney, in early morning, has a macabre, poetic beauty. It is one of those areas of London that is thoroughly confused about itself, being in transition from various ancient states of being to new ones it is still busy searching for. The City, which still preserves its Roman quality of ending very abruptly at its ancient gates, towers beyond Aldgate pump, then stops: so that gruesome Venetian financial palaces abut on to semi-slums. From the dowdy baroque of Liverpool street station, smoke and thunder fall on Spitalfields market with its vigorous dawn life and odour of veg, fruit and flowers like blended essences of the citizens’ duties, delights and fantasies. Below the windowless brick warehouses of the Port of London Authority, the road life of Wentworth street–almost unknown elsewhere in London where roads are considered means by which to move from place to place, not places in themselves–bubbles, over spills and sways in argument and shrill persuasion, to the off-stage squawks of thousands of slaughtered chickens. Old Montague street with its doorless shops that open outward in the narrow thoroughfare, and its discreet, secretive synagogues, has still the flavour of a semi-voluntary ghetto. Further south, in Commercial road, are the nocturnal vice caffs that members of parliament and of Royal Commissions are wont to visit, invariably accompanied by a detective-inspector to ensure that their expedition will reveal nothing characteristic of the area; and which, when suppressed, pop up again immediately elsewhere or under different names with different men of straw at the identical old address. In Cable street, below, the castaways from Africa and the Caribbean perform a perpetual, melancholy, wryly humorous ballet of which they are themselves the only audience. Amid incredible slums–which, one may imagine, with the huge new blocks replacing them, are preserved there by authority to demonstrate the contrast of before-and-after–are pieces of railway architecture of grimly sombre grandeur. Then come the docks with masts and funnels strangely emerging above chimney tops, and house-locked basins, the entry to which by narrow canals and swinging bridges seems, to the landsman, an impossibility, were it not for the cargo boats nestling snugly between the derelict tenements. Suddenly, beyond this, you come upon the river: which this far down, lined with wharves and cranes and bearing great ocean loving steamers, is no longer the pretty, grubby, playground of the higher reaches but already, by now, the sea.
A great charm of the area is that only here, in one sense, is London really a capital city at all. For what, elsewhere in the world, distinguishes capitals from their bleak provincial brethren is that they’re open for business all night, and for seven days in the week. Thanks to the markets, seamen, and Commonwealth minorities, in Stepney you can eat and drink, as well as other things, at any hour you choose to; and thanks to the alternation of the Jewish sabbath with the Gentile, the shops and markets never close. All that remains astonishing, since this is England, about this delightful state of affairs is that no one has yet managed to suppress it.
Frankie breakfasted in Stepney at one of those cafés usually conducted by Somalis which, unlike the more exclusive Maltese, Asian, or Caribbean establishments, are often neutral ground for clients of the most diverse nationalities. And so fell into conversation with a Glaswegian seaman… (84-85)